Website migrations happen for various reasons and carry inherent risks. The worst issues can be avoided with the right technical tools and approaches. We sat down with EasyRedir Founder & CEO William Richards & NS1 Sr. Director of Product Line Management Terry Bernstein to discuss the technical challenges you will typically face in the web migration process.
Here are some tips to make your next site migration as painless as possible.
Q: Website migrations can mean a lot of different things. Can you give us an overview of some of the most common ones you've seen at EasyRedir?
William: Website migrations happen for a couple of different reasons. One is you're updating content on your main website while hosting it on the same URL. This would be a simple website refresh, such as updating visuals and copy to be more current. These happen every two to three years. Other reasons you might do a website migration would be that you've changed an underlying technology component, like switching to a different CMS product like WordPress.
Another type of migration happens when you want to move across to a different host or domain name. This might happen if you are changing your strategy on how you are doing localization. It was in vogue to have yourlanguage.yourcompany.com. For example, en.mycompany.com and de and es and so on. It's more common to show that in your single domain name from an SEO perspective. This strategy difference might explain why you'd want to do a website migration.
Q: Can you give us some background on where DNS would come into play in the website migration process?
Terry: DNS is the first step in application delivery. When the person visiting your website hits return on their browser, DNS is called. The first thing you have to change for your migration is typically related to your DNS. You either change the IP address or C name in DNS to point to the new server, or you might need to redirect your customers to a URL forwarding service, such as EasyRedir, so the URLs can be forwarded. If you need to change your website, the first step is to either change the IP address or the CNAME of the site to which the users are going.
Q: What are some of the most common issues companies encounter with URL redirects during a website migration?
William: There are different categories of issues that customers commonly have. One is usage or a user problem; URL redirection can often be very technically complicated. It's very common to want to remove the technical person that's being the blocker or the needed person as part of this. You want to move this down to your business teams, the people who own and manage the content themselves. Using some different tooling ensures that the people who care the most about what's going on with this content are the people that can control it and make it happen very quickly.
Another common issue is that you don't have a perfect understanding of all your pages and where they should go. As part of any website migration project, you must ask what content we have today and where it needs to go from a user perspective. How do you best deliver your audience to the right place to get them the answer they want? You want to avoid just sending your users to your homepage and then navigating to where they want to go on the new website.
Q: What are some common DNS issues you can encounter during a website migration?
Terry: The first issue is a data entry error on the DNS side. It's a pretty critical setup. You're changing your website from one IP or one CNAME to another. If you're doing that, you're changing the hostname, so you must ensure that you enter that data correctly. A screw-up there will be pretty catastrophic. Always double-check your data entry.
A similar kind of DNS configuration error is setting the TTLs too long. The TTL means time to live. It's the time that resolvers cache the answer. TTL is set on the order of hours, but it's possible that you could have it set as long as a day.
What that means is when you make the change in your management system, say you log in to the NS1 Connect portal and make your change to the DNS.It could take up to a day for that to propagate to the whole internet. You want to set the TTL to a much shorter time frame to increase the number of DNS queries you get. Once you make the change, it will go into effect very quickly, and you don't have to wait.
Another issue or error people should be looking for is how you reference the new website. If you're moving to a CDN, you might now need to use a CNAME to reference the site through the CDN. CDNs have unique challenges because you can't put them at a zone’s apex. For example, at www.NS1.com, I can CNAME that to a CDN. I can set that up in DNS, but if I want people to be able to type NS1.com and have that go through the CDN, the traditional standard space DNS doesn't support that.
There's a custom feature that NS1 and many vendors have that simulates a CNAME at the apex of a zone. We call it the alias record, which allows you to put in, for example, NS1.com points to a certain CDN, a record on a CDN, and simulates a CNAME at the apex. So those are three things to watch out for. Data entry, check your TTLs and ensure you have support for CNAME at the apex if you’re moving to a CDN or similar infrastructure.
Q: What strategies and tools can help you successfully complete a website migration?
Terry: The biggest step I would recommend is to use a system that allows you to test that migration ahead of time. For example, you can use traffic management tools to send just a small percentage of traffic over to the new website, either by changing the IP or, if you're starting to use a tool like EasyRedir, you could start directing a small amount of traffic through the EasyRedir system so you can validate that it's working.
I want to send 10% of the traffic to the new website, then 20, 30, 40, and then ramp up to 100%. That way, if you made a mistake, if something doesn't work, you're only impacting a small percentage of your audience, and you're not impacting your entire customer base. Test and go slowly. Ramp up so that you can easily recover if you make a mistake.
Thank you to William Richards, EasyRedir, and Terry Bernstein for diving deep into website migration.